'We had 50 shooting sets' Isle of Dogs cinematographer Tristan Oliver describes his shooting process

Tristan Oliver is the cinematographer of Wes Anderson's new critically-acclaimed animated film Isle of Dogs which follows a young boy called Atari  as he searches for his pet dog after the whole species is banished to 'Trash Island' after a dog flu virus sweeps the land. Tristan started his career with Aardman animations' legendary Wallace and Gromit films A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers and here he talks to Mandy News about his journey to success, his shooting process on Isle of Dogs, what it's like working with Wes Anderson and what aspiring cinematographers can do to succeed. 

29th March 2018
/ By James Collins

Tristan Oliver – Isle of Dogs cinematographer TRISTANOLIVER

So Tristan, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in film and specifically the camera department?
I didn’t really have much interest in photography at all when I was younger. I was involved with the theatre and acting quite a lot. When I was 20, I was in a movie and that whole process was suddenly there in front of me and I was really enthralled by it.

After that, I threw myself into trying to get involved with the camera department. So I had a very bizarre couple of years where I was acting and being a clapper loader at the same time. I had to decide what I was going to do with my life so, in the end, I went to film school. I had a reasonably successful time there, our graduate movies did very well on the student film circuit and it all took off from there.

Of course let’s not pretend it wasn’t intensely difficult and frustrating but it all segued into pop promos and free short films for people and I made my way up from that point.

How did you get involved with Isle of Dogs and in turn working with Wes Anderson again?
Isle of Dogs obviously came about due to Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s all about how I got that job really.

I caught wind of Fantastic Mr. Fox coming to the UK and I ferreted around trying to find who I could contact about it but couldn’t find anyone. Eventually, an old friend of mine just happened to be going to meet with the producer and he was terribly professional about it but did give me a phone number. I rang her up and got through the door that way. They actually already had a DP for the film but I talked to them and showed them my reel and that went on to Wes and I got the job.

Bear in mind, I had already done Chicken Run, Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Wrong Trousers and Close Shave at that point so I was carrying that weight of experience. But to step out of the comfy armchair that is Aardman Animations and do another movie was an interesting thing and I’m glad I did it.

What is it like working with Wes and what kind of approach did you take on Isle of Dogs? Also, when did you come on board the project?
I came on board in October 2015 and went into a period of camera testing and various other things but I did already have the script, the storyboard and had spoken to Wes on the phone as we had that exisiting relationship.

Everybody who had worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox knew what they were getting in terms of working practice on Isle of Dogs. It is no secret that Wes isn’t actually present in the studio when we’re shooting but is present electronically. He sits down at his computer at 7:30 in the morning and doesn’t get up from it until we finish sending rushes last thing at night. He’s immediately available by phone or email and he responds incredibly quickly. As everything nowadays is digital, we can throw shots and frames at him pretty much in real-time.

What was the length of the shoot?
We started shooting in April 2016 and we finished just before Christmas 2017. So around 20 months which is entirely typical for one of these films.

How long would it take to shoot a second’s worth of viewing?
That’s not a question I can answer at all actually as it’s such a highly variable thing and not fixed in any way. What you have to think of is when the movie is at full chat, we’ve got 50+ shooting units running. We’ve got 50 sets. 50 cameras. We occupy an enormous amount of space.

We had half of all the available studio space at 3 Mills to shoot the film. We were turning out two and a half to three minutes a week. In terms of what one animator can do, it is entirely dependent on what they’re being asked to do.

What are the more challenging aspects of shooting something like Isle of Dogs?
The most challenging thing now is a peculiar result of having too much choice due to digital capture. When we used to shoot on film, you basically had to decide what you were going to shoot there and then. Shooting digitally, you have a lot more options.

For instance, you can shoot multiple exposures on the camera and the software we use will separate those into different lines of data. As a result, we can show Wes options of what that image can look like. As an example, if there is a flash of lightning in a scene we can shoot every single frame with the lightning on and off so you can time it to any point of the shot at any intensity using those two separate lines of exposure.

In some cases, we have 17 or 18 lines of exposure to enable lighting effects to take place at a time to be determined in the editing and post-production process rather than during shooting. Due to that, you’re constantly trying to predict what that demand might be. It might not be technically taxing but it’s hugely time-consuming. Sometimes, it’s just good to commit to what you want to see rather than trying to second guess what you might want to see.

In terms of difficulty, there wasn’t anything too difficult as my crew are quite experienced and have done this sort of thing before and, by this point, any problems that do arise, you know how to fix.

How does working on something like Isle of Dogs differ from working on something like Loving Vincent?
Loving Vincent is a completely different kettle of fish. With Loving Vincent, I basically shot a 90 minute live action movie with real actors on real sets with quite a lot of green screen. They then reprojected those frames on to paper and for three years, 120 painters sploshed oil paint all over it. You’ll never see anything like it!

My involvement in that movie was actually nothing to do with the animation.

On Loving Vincent, when did you shoot your parts for it?
At the beginning. Right up front. In March 2015. We shot that and then forgot about it. Off they went to Gdansk in Poland to paint them and to raise money. It was made on the tiniest budget. The live action part was basically a Kickstarter project. It’s had the most astonishing life and it has done better than anyone could have imagined.

I think it looks tremendous but really what you’re seeing of my work is the movement. We did shoot it properly and knit it to match the paintings so the live action version is actually quite watchable. There is a link to it available on my website.

As you mentioned before, you have worked with Aardman animations on quite a few of their projects. How did you first come into contact with them and Nick Park?
As I went to university and film school in Bristol, I kind of knew they were there. They were very, very tiny at the time. I did have a few mates who were doing some freelance work there and I rang them up one day as I wanted to borrow some lights for a pop promo. The whole setup there was so laid-back. They asked me if I was doing anything next week and whether I wanted to shoot a commercial with them. I accepted and went down to the shoot and there were four of them.

There was Pete and Dave who owned and, still own, the company, a producer and this kid in the corner finishing their graduation film. That was Nick. He was finishing A Grand Day Out when he had time in between shooting commercials for them. Nothing was ever scheduled there. They would start a job and it would take as long as it took to shoot. It was fantastically laid-back but also an enormously creative time. Just to be there at the birth of it.

They liked me and I liked them so I hung in there and freelanced for them for a very long time.

Can you explain the use of animatics for animation, for those that don’t know?
The thing about animation is you do not want to shoot any more than you will finally put into your cut. Once the script is finished, the storyboard is made and then the storyboards are shot to the length it will be in the finished cut. So you have an edit of the storyboard and a dialogue record pre-existing and that is your main reference for the movie.

As a result, you know that from frame one to frame 35 you have a close-up and from frame 36 to 72, you have a wide shot. You really aren’t shooting any coverage at all as you can’t expect an animator to shoot something that isn’t going to be seen as it’s too difficult and time-consuming.

Essentially, the storyboard and the animatic are the gospel for the movie.

What sort of cameras and setup do you use for these projects?
They are obviously not standard movie cameras. The main problem being that I simply could not afford 50 ALEXAs for two years. That would have basically been the entire budget. So we tend to use high-end digital stills cameras and, because we are shooting single frames, we can pull a full resolution RAW image off those cameras that is incredibly high quality. Actually, they’re far higher quality than you would get off a digital movie camera. To serve our 50 units, we buy around 80 of those cameras. So our spend is pretty big on cameras.

On Isle of Dogs, I used a Canon 1DX but really we’re re-testing every time we do a movie as those cameras come and go and newer, better ones come along. We found on Isle of Dogs that halfway through when we needed more cameras, they’d actually discontinued it and brought out the Canon 1DX MkII which is a substantially different camera. We then had to scour the globe for any new old stock of the 1DX.

Aardman had exactly the same problem with the same camera on Early Man. We normally test between 6-8 cameras at the beginning of every job and pick the one that is going to the best job.

With technology changing so quickly, even in the space of a shoot, what differences has it made? Does it make your job any easier or harder to do?
There are advantages and disadvantages. I don’t believe they have made things any easier. The task of a cinematographer is to make things looks beautiful and that remains outside of whatever you’re capturing it on. You could use an iPhone or a RED Weapon but your job is still to make the best use of the image. What digital capture gives you is an immediate idea of the shot rather than sending it off to a laboratory and waiting for it.

At the same time, there were some moments when we were shooting completely on film where that didn’t seem much of a problem. Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit were both shot on 35mm film and both took 18 months, so shooting digitally doesn’t necessarily make the process any quicker. The fact that you can see stuff the moment you’ve shot it means everyone stops to watch it and the day becomes a little more choppy. Whereas on film, it all happens in the morning, gets done and you get on with the day.

For me, the most exciting stuff technology-wise is happening with lighting. With LEDs and the like, you can have things much cooler, draw far less power, can change colour temperature easily without going through rolls and rolls of gel. Miniature LEDs are very exciting too. Super-tiny, super-bright light sources that are like grains of sand in size. They’re really useful for hiding in places and have expanded the palette creatively.

What are you working on this year and beyond?
I’m desperately trying to get a bit of a rest! We only finished last Christmas and went straight into press and publicity and then I shot a Money Supermarket Action Man commercial which only finished just recently.

Once the release is done, it’s a few months off. I am talking to a few people about a couple features but unfortunately I can not tell you what they are. These films are enormously tiring. An average live action film shoot lasts between 8-12 weeks so if you’re shooting for 80+ weeks, it can completely drain you.

Are there breaks between shooting or is it continuous?
We have weekends and public holidays off. We have eight to nine days off around Christmas depending on where it falls. Four days at Easter and standard bank holidays. We don’t get any other weeks off during the year.

It’s often five or six days a week and working from 7:30am til 7pm. That’s the standard day but some people do overtime and go beyond and above that. It’s a massive task sometimes! The weekend just becomes laundry, shopping, sleep and then you’re back to work.

What advice would you offer budding DoPs, cinematographers or anyone trying to get into the camera department?
Honestly, it’s a very boring, old-fashioned answer but the only way to learn how the camera department works is to start from the bottom. There is no shame in beginning as a trainee and picking up those skills.

Start as a loader and work your way up to focus-pulling. All those jobs inform what you do as a cinematographer. Most people come out of film school and they immediately call themselves a cinematographer. The job is really about getting out of bed every single day, even when you feel terrible, going into the studio and doing your work. If all you’re relying on is just a little spark of innate talent then you’re never going to be able to do that.

You’ve just got to keep learning. You’ve got to keep reading about movies, watching movies, asking yourself questions about why you like those movies. It’s a constant education. I’m still, after all these years, avidly reading American Cinematographer in order to keep myself sharp.

Knowing how the kit works is very important so that you know what different cameras and lenses can do. In the end, you’ve got to understand how it all ties together and that’s why it’s so important to start from the bottom and work your way up.